President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation creating America’s first federal highway in 1802. That road reached Illinois in 1828 and eventually took travelers through the remains of America’s oldest city. It had been abandoned for about 500 years, so few people stopped to look at what was left of it. Almost everyone failed to understand its significance. In fact, when the Interstate Highway System was being built near the middle of the 20th century, the plan was to route I-55 through it. Archaeologists were given some time before bulldozers and concrete arrived to find any artifacts. Along with them, they found an important burial site. The man interred there was dubbed birdman. That’s him below. Near Birdman were the remains of 53 young woman. They had been strangled to serve him in the afterlife. Five years later I-55 had been rerouted and the greatest killing field in the United States, 272 burial sites, had been discovered, Woodhenge, a North American version of Stonehenge, was being evaluated, and Mound 72’s value had finally been recognized. By 1982 the Cahokia Mounds had been officially named a World Heritage Site, one of only 21 in America.
Mound 72 eventually proved to be just one of more than 120 mounds created by the Mississippian people who lived here in one of the largest cities in the world until it was abandoned by the 13th century. Because it was at the confluence of 3 important rivers, the Cahokia Mounds were built by people whose food needs were well met so they were free to develop crafts, like shell-bead creations, manufacture trade goods, become coppersmiths, etc. Their culture thrived, probably until the trees nearby had all been used and crop growing or animal hunting became more difficult to feed a community that may have supported 20,000 humans.
Monks Mound, “the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas” according to one brochure, was the largest. Monks was constructed by people carrying baskets of dirt to the site. Its base covered more than 14 acres and required dumping 22 million cubic feet of earth. It rose 100 feet from the flood-prone plain and got its name from the French Trappist monks who lived on another mound for 4 years ending in 1813. They farmed Monk’s terraces.
A visit to Cahokia Mounds 2,200-acre site today should include looking at the displays in its excellent visitor center, a viewing of Cahokia, City of the Sun, a fine film with a surprise at its end, and mounting Monks Mound’s 156 steps to appreciate the effort that climbing them takes to admire the view.
Someone on the staff told me that while amazing stuff was still being learned, many mysteries remain. Reportedly, an Italian archaeological team is currently working the area. After I was told that, a volunteer took me over to show me a 6 to 700-year-old dugout canoe found on a sandbar in Arkansas in 2008. This museum recently acquired it.
I just got back from Mexico. When I told friends & family that Ruth & I were going there, many assumed that we would include the temples & pyramids of Teotihuacán in our itinerary. “No, I told them, “We went to Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico, instead.”